Tourism Industry Blooms on Ashtabula County’s Vines

GENEVA-ON-THE-LAKE, Ohio -- A couple from Warren walks their dog along the lakefront path. Strolling toward them are three sisters from the Ursuline Motherhouse in Canfield. All are taking a day trip to wineries in Ashtabula County -- the manifestation of the market niche that began to bear fruit 30 years ago.

“It was a last-minute idea -- we like to visit the wineries,” says Sister Eileen Kernan as she and her colleagues enjoy the view outside The Lodge at Geneva on the Lake, a 109-room resort built 10 years ago by Ashtabula County to cater to wine and Lake Erie enthusiasts. 

“We come up for the day because we live so close. And when friends come from out of town, we take them to the wineries,” says Jennifer Storm as her husband, Stephen, shepherds their dog, Sugar, away from our photographer’s legs.

On this day, the Hot Air Balloon Rally is taking place at Debonne Vineyards in nearby Madison and The Lodge at Geneva is awaiting the arrival of legislative VIPs invited there by state Rep. John Patterson, a freshman Democrat from Jefferson.

“I want them to see what we have to offer. For example, I have a dredging project in the Ashtabula River that’s important,” Patterson says. “I want them to see what my district is like so they can assist me in helping our people here.”

Patterson rapidly recites typical tourist stops: “18 covered bridges -- the world’s longest and the shortest -- 23 wineries, three scenic rivers, Lake Erie, Pymatuning [State Park in Andover] and the largest private lake in Ohio, Roaming Shores.”

After the legislator’s guests check into The Lodge, they depart for Windows on Pairings, a nonprofit wine and culinary center created by Ashtabula economic development and grape industry groups and supported by the county’s wineries. The venue, at 50 Park St. in Geneva, held its grand opening June 22.

“Agriculture and tourism are the county’s two biggest industries,” Patterson says. “They’re the Band-Aids that keep us going until we can reconfigure to see how we can get larger industries.”

A year ago, the biomass industry appeared promising with Aloterra Energy, a Texas company, talking about building a $35 million miscanthus grass processing plant at the city of Conneaut’s industrial park near the company’s 80-acre test farm.

“Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear that the state sees this as an investment for the future,” says Tim Eggleston, Conneaut city manager. “They’re not finding a lot of reception from JobsOhio to secure funding to clean up the site, generate revenues and keep this project going,” he laments.

Aloterra did not respond to requests for comment.

Also last July, prospects seemed bright for the Erie Inland Port project, a regional logistics hub the Economic Development Corp. of Erie, Pa., proposed that would include the Port of Conneaut.

But in May, the rail component of the project came to a screeching halt, the result of intense opposition from residents who live near the proposed site in Harborcreek Township, Pa., just east of Erie. “The project now stands at a crossroads,” the Erie development agency announced.

Even so, 35 years after the retrenchment of the steel industry nearly sank the Ashtabula County shipping business, there are signs of growth in other industrial sectors.

On June 25, Ashta Chemicals announced it would invest $60 million to upgrade the technology at its chlorine and potassium-based chemicals plant in Ashtabula. That same day, a British company, Velocys, announced it’s acquiring Pinto Energy LLC and taking over its $200 million gas-to-liquids project planned for a site once part of Union Carbide’s complex on the south side of Lake Road.

Pinto -- a startup whose CEO is John Baardson, the promoter of the Baard Energy coal-to-liquid plant that failed to materialize in Wellsville -- first announced its plans Sept. 24. That same day, the Ashtabula County Port Authority said it would renovate the dormant First Energy coal-fired electricity plant mechanisms for pumping water from Lake Erie so it could supply two nearby manufacturers, Praxair Industrial Gases and Cristal Co., a Saudi Arabian company that’s the world’s largest producer of titanium dioxide.

Cristal, the county’s largest employer, subsequently said in October that it would invest $64 million to expand the capacity of its two plants and take its local workforce to 525.

Then in January, Mohawk Fine Papers, a New York company, said it would upgrade its plant in Saybrook Township -- total investment undisclosed -- add 100 workers to its 125-person staff, and expand operations to 24/7.

Since January 2010, when Ashtabula County’s unemployment rate was 15.2%, it has fallen to 6.0% in May, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The county’s population is just under 100,000, only 8.7% of its residents have a four-year college degree, and the poverty rate is high – 20.3% compared to 16.3% statewide, state statistics show.

“Everyone is getting involved, trying to solve the workforce issues of tomorrow,” says Hattie Grubke-Barnard, project manager for the Ashtabula Growth Partnership.

The county’s 12 largest manufacturers worked with the Growth Partnership and the Ashtabula County Technical & Career Campus to design an industrial maintenance curriculum that’s “module based,” Grubke-Barnard says. “Right now our focus is the incumbent worker but we hope to push it out to those looking for training to find jobs.”

A partnership with the Buckeye Local Schools and “four major chemical companies in Ashtabula Township, built some STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] curriculum and got kids and teachers in the plants,” she adds.

Still, the travel and tourism industry might be the easiest point of entry for workers of all ages – as well as for entrepreneurs, says Mark Winchell, executive director of the Ashtabula County Convention & Visitors Bureau. “It gives us an opportunity to bring in folks at entry level, front-line staff making minimum wage, or at the mid-range or highest levels. You can start in the industry at age 16 and work your way up to management, and even ownership, in a short period of time.”

Today one in seven workers in Ashtabula County is directly employed in travel and tourism, according to Winchell, as compared to the state average of one in 15. He cites numbers from 2011, the most recent study, that estimate tourism generates $381 million annually for the county economy, which results in $83 million in annual payroll.

Obviously Lake Erie is the fixed asset that’s never subject to recession-induced shutdowns. “In our case, in 2009, when the economy was at its worst, tourism here did exceedingly well,” Winchell says.

Factor in the wine industry -- “They say that booze is recession-proof,” he laughs -- and over the last 12 years tourism has grown “between 4% to 11% every single year, year over year.”

The Lodge at Geneva on the Lake, this year celebrating its 10th anniversary with a series of promotions, has housed nearly “one-half million visitors” since it opened, says its general manager, Eric Frantz.

The venue markets itself as “Ohio’s wine country resort” and “has been named one of the Top 10 Wine Country Inns in the U.S. by for three years running,” he notes.

Although the county owns the resort, it’s operated by a third-party management group, Delaware North Co. of Wilmington, Del. The Lodge employs 120. It cost $21.7 million to build The Lodge and taxpayers remain on the hook for a large portion of that debt, a source of some political contention.

“This property has revolutionized how we promote the county to outlying markets in Pittsburgh and Columbus,” Winchell says.

He cites another study, this one by Ohio State University, that estimates The Lodge has generated $85 million in tourism dollars since it opened – as well as spinoff businesses.

“Alcohol consumption is a business where you need transportation, and entrepreneurs have found this is a great niche,” he says. “The wineries have created expanded taste rooms, and when this lodge opened there was one transportation company in Ashtabula County serving the wineries. Now there are 17.”

Pictured: Enjoying their walk on the lakefront are Ursuline sisters Eileen Kernan, Mary Ann Diersing and Eleanor Santangelo.

Editor's Note: This story first appeared in the July edition of The Business Journal.

Copyright 2014 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.
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